Sunday, December 24, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Lazy Afternoon" (from Jerome Moross' and John La Touche's The Golden Apple) from My Favorite Musical Theater Songs

“Lazy Afternoon”

Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Kaye Ballard, original cast recording, 1954
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Lucy Reed, with Bill Evans on paino, 1955
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Helen Merrill, 1956
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Joe Henderson (orchestration only)
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Hank Jones (piano and orchestration only)
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Anita Daren, TV version, 1978
Composer: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Shirley Horn
Composer: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Tony Bennett
Composers: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Eartha Kitt, 1992
Composer: Jerome Moross and John La Touche
Performer: Barbra Streisand

It’s difficult to really talk about either the composer of this marvelous song, Jerome Moross or the rather amazing lyricist, John La Touche. In many respects these talented artists, born one year apart, were both completely involved in their classical and performative worlds—Moross was influenced by both Bernard Hermann and Aaron Copland, and La Touche had so many major literary, operatic, and theatrical connections that one might suggest that he was the most connected individuals of his era—yet both were still extreme outsiders, daring to take music and theater into different dimensions. Had La Touche, who died at the early age of 41, primarily of alcoholism, and Moross who died, also a bit early, at the age of 69, have been allowed their full dimensions, we might have truly seen a great revolution in theater and operatic history. As it was, both left behind several important works—Moross, an operatic musical Susanna and the Elders, several classical pieces, and the musical The Golden Apple, and La Touche, wonderful lyrics for Cabin in the Sky, Candide, and The Golden Apple. One aches for their talents to have been more appreciated in their day, and not basically forgotten as they seem to have been. My poet friend, Kenward Elmslie, who lived with La Touche for many years, had long encouraged me to write about him; and I will soon do so. Had I only known what I pretended to.
      The Golden Apple is filled with wonderful musical numbers, but one stands out, and has been recorded by nearly every performer of the 50’s: “Lazy Afternoon.” That song is so languid and restful that it hardly seems to have been written: it appears to be a song spun out of the boring community of Angel’s Roost, Washington, and the nature surrounding:

It's a lazy afternoon
And the beetle bugs are zooming
And the tulip trees are blooming
And there's not another human in view but us two

It's a lazy afternoon
And the farmer leaves his reaping
In the meadow cows are sleeping
And the speckled trouts stop leaping up stream

As we dream
A far pink cloud hangs over the hill
Unfolding like a rose
If you hold my hand and sit real still
You can hear the grass as it grows

Image result for The Golden Apple musical Lazy Afternoon     It’s amazing to me how La Touche completely embeds words in his text that are never heard, but remain in our head nonetheless. In the very first stanza we “hear” the word “human being” despite its absence. In the last stanza of this section, the word “seems” keeps creeping out to rhyme with “dream.” And we know that that “rose” must soon “close.” Not to even speak about how everything in this piece continually “slows.” The lyricist says always far more that he seems to say. Our ears naturally hear words that aren’t even spoken.
     This is perhaps one of the most slow-motion songs ever. Shirley Horn slows in down to a stunningly hover, expanding its notion of laziness to a practically stalled, minimalist musical number, when the lyrics almost counter the emotional content of the young Helen (originally Kaye Ballard) from any of her possible seductiveness. And the usually brassy Kaye Ballad even sings it, in 1954, with a seductive breathiness that you might have never imagined possible from her. She’s quite charming in this early version.
     Lucy Reed is one of the best interpreters of this piece, with Helen Merrill and even Barbra Streisand coming in close. But I’d give the best to Eartha Kitt’s utterly seductive version from 1992: she truly summarizes its slow, steady, intonations that brings Paris to her woodland bed. Even I, as a gay man, would follow her to the “place that’s quiet / ‘Cept for daisies running riot / And there’s no one passing by it to see.”


Los Angeles, December 24, 2017

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